Jo Walton's "My Real Children" [book excerpt]
Read the first seven chapters from Jo Walton's beautiful novel of forking lives (review), where a single change leads to radically different destinies.
Sonnet Against Entropy
The worm drives helically through the wood
And does not know the dust left in the bore
Once made the table integral and good;
And suddenly the crystal hits the floor.
Electrons find their paths in subtle ways,
A massless eddy in a trail of smoke;
The names of lovers, light of other days --
Perhaps you will not miss them. That's the joke.
The universe winds down. That's how it's made.
But memory is everything to lose;
Although some of the colors have to fade,
Do not believe you'll get the chance to choose.
Regret, by definition, comes too late;
Say what you mean. Bear witness. Iterate.
—John M. Ford, October 13, 2003
"Confused today," they wrote on her notes. "Confused. Less confused. Very confused." That last was written frequently, sometimes abbreviated by the nurses to just "VC," which made her smile, as if she were sufficiently confused to be given a medal for it. Her name was on the notes too -- just her first name, Patricia, as if in old age she were demoted to childhood, and denied both the dignity of surname and title and the familiarity of the form of her name she preferred. The notes reminded her of a school report with the little boxes and fixed categories into which it was so difficult to express the real complexity of any situation. "Spelling atrocious." "Needs to pay attention." "Confused today." They seemed remote and Olympian and impossible to appeal. "But Miss!" the kids would say in more recent years. She would never have dared when she was in school, and neither would the obedient girls of her first years of teaching. "But Miss!" was a product of their growing confidence, trickle-down feminism, and she welcomed it even as it made her daily work harder. She wanted to say it now herself to the nurses who added to her notes: "But Miss! I'm only a little confused today!"
The notes hung clipped to the end of her bed. They listed her medication, the stuff for her heart she had been taking for years since the first attack. She was grateful that they remembered it for her now, the abrupt Latin syllables. She liked to check the notes from time to time, even though the staff discouraged it if they caught her at it. The notes had the date, which otherwise was hard to remember, and even the day of the week, which she so easily lost track of here, where all days were alike. She could even forget what time of year it was, going out so seldom, which she would have thought impossible. Not knowing the season really was a sign of severe confusion.
Sometimes, especially at first, she looked at the notes to see how confused she appeared to them, but often lately she forgot, and then forgot what she had forgotten to do among the constant morass of things she needed to keep track of and the endless muddle of notes reminding herself of what she had meant to do. She had found a list once that began "Make list." VC, the attendants would have written if they had seen it; but that was long before the dementia began, when she had been still quite young, although she had not thought so at the time. She had never felt older than those years when the children were small and so demanding of her attention. She had felt it a new lease on youth when they were grown and gone, and the constant drain on her time and caring was relieved. Not that she had ever stopped caring. Even now when she saw their faces, impossibly middle-aged, she felt that same burden of unconditional loving tugging at her, their needs and problems, and her inability to keep them safe and give them what they wanted.
It was when she thought of her children that she was most truly confused. Sometimes she knew with solid certainty that she had four children, and five more stillbirths: nine times giving birth in floods of blood and pain, and of those, four surviving. At other times she knew equally well that she had two children, both born by caesarean section late in her life after she had given up hope. Two children of her body, and another, a stepchild, dearest of them all. When any of them visited she knew them, knew how many of them there were, and the other knowledge felt like a dream. She couldn't understand how she could be so muddled. If she saw Philip she knew he was one of her three children, yet if she saw Cathy she knew she was one of her four children. She recognized them and felt that mother's ache. She was not yet as confused as her own mother had been at last when she had not known her, had wept and fled from her and accused her of terrible crimes. She knew that time would come, when her children and grandchildren would be strangers. She had watched her mother's decline and knew what lay ahead. In her constant struggle to keep track of her glasses and her hearing aid and her book it was this that she dreaded, the day when they came and she did not know them, when she would respond to Sammy politely as to a stranger, or worse, in horror as to an enemy.
She was glad for their sake that they didn't have to witness it every day, as she had done. She was glad they had found her this nursing home, even if it seemed to shift around her from day to day, abruptly thrusting out new wings or folding up on itself to make a wall where yesterday there had been a corridor. She knew there was a lift, and yet when the nurses told her that was nonsense she took the stairlift as docilely as she could. She remembered her mother struggling and fighting and insisting, and let it go. When the lift was there again she wanted to tell the nurse in triumph that she had been right, but it was a different nurse. And what was more likely, after all -- that it was the dementia ("VC"), or that place kept changing? They were gentle and well-meaning, she wasn't going to ascribe their actions to malice as her mother had so easily ascribed everything. Still, if she was going to forget some things and remember others, why couldn't she forget the anguish of her mother's long degeneration and remember where she had put down her hearing aids?
Two of the nurses were taking her down to the podiatrist one day -- she was so frail now that she needed one on each side to help her shuffle down the corridor. They stood waiting for the elusive lift, which appeared to be back in existence today. The wall by the lift was painted an institutional green, like many of the schools where she had taught. It was a color nobody chose for their home, but which any committee thought appropriate for a school or a hospital or a nursing home. Hanging on the wall was a reproduction of a painting, a field of poppies. It wasn't Monet as she had thought on earlier casual glances; it was one of the Second Impressionist school of the Seventies. "Pamela Corey," she said, remembering.
"No," the male nurse said, patronizing as ever. "It's David Hockney. Corey painted the picture of the ruins of Miami we have in the little day room."
"I taught her," she said.
"No, did you?" the female nurse asked. "Fancy having taught somebody famous like that, helped somebody become a real artist."
"I taught her English, not art," Pat said, as the lift came and they all three went in. "I do remember encouraging her to go on to the Royal Academy." Pamela Corey had been thin and passionate in the sixth form, and torn between Oxford and painting. She remembered talking to her about safe and unsafe choices, and what one might regret.
"Somebody famous," the female nurse repeated, breaking her train of thought.
"She wasn't famous then," Pat said. "Nobody is. You never know until too late. They're just people like everyone else. Anyone you know might become famous. Or not. You don't know which ones will make a difference or if any of them will. You might become famous yourself. You might change the world."
"Bit late for that now," the nurse said, laughing that little deprecating laugh that Pat always hated to hear other women use, the laugh that diminished possibilities.
"It's not too late. You'd be amazed how much I've done since I was your age, how much difference I've made. You can do whatever you want to, make yourself whatever you want to be."
The nurse recoiled a little from her vehemence. "Calm down now, Patricia," the male nurse said on her other side. "You're scaring poor Nasreen."
She grimaced. Men always diminished her that way, and what she had been saying had been important. She turned back to the female nurse, but they were out of the lift and in a corridor she'd never seen before, a corridor with heather-twill carpet, and though she had been sure they were going to the podiatrist it was an opthalmologist who was waiting in the sunny little room. Confused, she thought. Confused again, and maybe she really was scaring the nurses. Her mother had scared her. She hated to close herself back in the box of being a good girl, to appease, to smile, to let go of the fierce caring that had been so much a part of who she was. But she didn't want to terrify people either.
Later, back in her bedroom with a prescription for new reading glasses that the nurse had taken away safely, she tried to remember what she had been thinking about Pamela. Follow your heart, she had said, or perhaps follow your art. Of course Pamela hadn't been famous then, and there had been nothing to mark her as destined for fame. She'd been just another girl, one of the hundreds or thousands of girls she had taught. Towards the end there had been boys too, after they went comprehensive, but it was the girls she especially remembered. Men had enough already; women were socialized not to put themselves first. She certainly had been. It was women who needed more of a hand making choices.
She had made choices. Thinking about that she felt the strange doubling, the contradictory memories, as if she had two histories that both led her to this point, this nursing home. She was confused, there was no question about that. She had lived a long life. They asked her how old she was and she said she was nearly ninety, because she couldn't remember whether she was eighty-eight or eighty-nine, and she couldn't remember if it was 2014 or 2015 either. She kept finding out and it kept slipping away. She was born in 1926, the year of the General Strike; she held on to that. That wasn't doubled. Her memories of childhood were solitary and fixed, clear and single as slides thrown on a screen. It must have happened later, whatever it was that caused it. At Oxford? After? There were no slides any more. Her grandchildren showed her photographs on their phones. They lived in a different world from the world where she had grown up.
A different world. She considered that for a moment. She had never cared for science fiction, though she had friends who did. She had read a children's book to the class once, Penelope Farmer's Charlotte Sometimes, about a girl in boarding school who woke up each day in a different time, forty years behind, changing places with another girl. She remembered they did each other's homework, which worked well enough except when it came to memorizing poetry. She had been forced to memorize just such reams of poetry by her mother, which had come in handy later. She was never at a loss for a quotation. She had probably been accepted into Oxford on her ability to quote, though of course it was the war, and the lack of young men had made it easier for women.
She had been to Oxford. Her memories there were not confusingly doubled. Tolkien had taught her Old English. She remembered him declaiming Beowulf at nine o'clock on a Monday morning, coming into the room and putting the book down with a bang and turning to them all: "Hwaet!" He hadn't been famous then, either. It was years before The Lord of the Rings and all the fuss. Later people had been so excited when she told them she had known him. You can never tell who's going to be famous. And at Oxford, as Margaret Drabble had written, everyone had the excitement of thinking they might be going to be someone famous. She had never imagined that she would be. But she had wondered about her friends, and certainly Mark. Poor Mark.
The indisputable fact was: she was confused. She lost track of her thoughts. She had difficulty remembering things. People told her things and she heard them and reacted and then forgot all about them. She had forgotten that Bethany had been signed by a record label. That she was just as delighted the second time Bethany told her didn't matter. Bethany had been crushed that she had forgotten. Worse, she had forgotten, unforgivably, that Jamie had been killed. She knew that Cathy was wounded that she could have forgotten, even though she had said that she wished she could forget herself. Cathy was so easily hurt, and she wouldn't have hurt her for anything, especially after such a loss, but she had, unthinkingly, because her brain wouldn't hold the memory. How much else had she forgotten and then not even remembered that she had forgotten?
Her brain couldn't be trusted. Now she imagined that she was living in two different realities, drifting between them; but it must be her brain that was at fault, like a computer with a virus that made some sectors inaccessible and others impossible to write to. That had been Rhodri's metaphor. Rhodri was one of the few people who would talk to her about her dementia as a problem, a problem with potential fixes and workarounds. She hadn't seen him for too long. Perhaps he was busy. Or perhaps she had been in the other world, the world where he didn't exist.
She picked up a book. She had given up on trying to read new books, though it broke her heart. She couldn't find where she had put them down and she couldn't remember what she had read so far. She could still re-read old books like old friends, though she knew that too would go; before the end her mother had forgotten how to read. For now, while she could, she read a lot of poetry, a lot of classics. Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford came to her hand now, and she opened it at random to read about Miss Matty and her financial difficulties back in the time of King William. "The last gigot in England had been seen in Cranford, and seen without a smile."
After a while she let the book drop. It had grown dark outside, and she got up and tottered over to draw the curtains. She made her way carefully, hanging onto the bed and then the wall. They didn't like her to do it without the quad cane but she was safe enough, there wasn't room to fall. Though she had fallen once on her way to the toilet and forgotten that she had a button to call for help. The curtains were navy blue, although she was quite sure there had been a pale green blind the last time. She leaned on the window sill, looking out at the bare branches of a sycamore moving in the breeze. The moon was half-obscured by a thin veil of cloud. Where was this place? Up on the moor? Or was it somewhere along the canal? There might be birds in the branches in the morning. She must remember to come and look. She had her binoculars somewhere. She remembered insisting on holding on to them and Philip saying gently that she wouldn't have any use for them in the nursing home and Jinny saying in her gruff way that she might as well bring them if she wanted them. They must be here somewhere, unless that was in the other world. It would be very unfair if the binoculars were in one world and the tree were in the other.
If there were two worlds.
If there were two worlds, then what caused her to slide between them? They weren't two times as they were for Charlotte. It was the same year, whichever year it was. It was just that things were different, things that shouldn't have been different. She had four children, or three. There was a lift in the nursing home, or there was only a stairlift. She could remember things that couldn't simultaneously be true. She remembered Kennedy being assassinated and she remembered him declining to run again after the Cuban missile exchange. They couldn't both have happened, yet she remembered them both happening. Had she made a choice that could have gone two ways and thereafter had two lives? Two lives that both began in Twickenham in 1926 and both ended here in this nursing home in 2014 or 2015, whichever it was?
She shuffled back and looked at her notes, clipped to the end of the bed. It was February 5th 2015, and she was VC. That was definite, and good to know. She sat down but did not take up the book. It would be suppertime soon, she could hear the trolley moving down the corridor. They'd feed her and then it would be time for bed. This was the same whatever world she was in.
If she had made a choice -- well, she knew she had. She could remember as clearly as she could remember anything. She had been in that little phone box in the corridor in The Pines and Mark had said that if she was going to marry him it would have to be now or never. And she had been startled and confused and had stood there in the smell of chalk and disinfectant and girls, and hesitated, and made the decision that changed everything in her life.
It was July 1933 and Patsy Cowan was seven years old and they were in Weymouth for two glorious weeks. There was a band in the bandstand, and sculptures of animals made of sand, and donkeys to ride and the sea to swim in, and they were building a sand pulpit for Mr. Price to preach from in the evening. She was wearing a brown cotton bathing suit, though most of the younger children and some of the other seven-year-olds still went bare. She could remember running bare when she had been a mere child, but she liked the bathing suit. Her fine brown hair was tied into bunches on both sides of her head, and when she shook her head hard she could make them slap her cheeks. She didn't do it though, because Oswald said it made her look stupid, shaking her head for nothing. Oswald was just ten, she envied his summer birthdays. He wore long striped swimming shorts, down to his knees, and he was beginning to tan already.
They had come down by the late train on Friday night and today was Sunday, only the second whole day of the holiday, with twelve more whole days to go. They wouldn't all twelve be this glorious, Patsy knew that. The sun couldn't shine all day every day even on holiday, there was bound to be at least one rainy day. But on a rainy day Dad would take them to the museum or to an interesting old church or castle, which might not be as wonderful as a day on the beach but it was still fun. There would also be one afternoon when Dad would take Oswald to see football -- "Sorry old girl, this is a boys' afternoon out, just us men!" Dad would say, as he said every year. It did no good to argue that she loved football, or that if Oswald was going to have Dad to himself for an afternoon she should have the same. Dad had pointed out last year that she was having an afternoon with just Mum, and of course even then when she'd been only six she had known better than to complain.
They dug the pulpit with spades and with their hands. The spades had wooden handles and metal blades, and they were just like real spades except for the size. Hers was red and Oswald's was blue, and Mum said that if they lost them they needn't think they were getting any more. Mum was sitting reading on a deck chair she had paid for at the top of the beach, but Dad was right there with them, organizing all the church children building the pulpit. Patsy loved the feeling of sand between her toes and the way sand was so easily shaped and manipulated. She loved making a mark and rubbing it out. Sand was hot on top and cool underneath when you dug, and it was clean, it brushed off, or if it didn't you could easily wash it off if you went down to bathe. Sand wasn't like dirt at home. You could get as sandy as you liked and just run into the water and be all clean again.
Best of all was coming down to the beach early in the morning when the tide had washed away all the marks of the day before, and running on the hard-packed sand making footprints. The first morning Dad had brought them down, they had followed the tracks of a man and a dog, the little paw prints running in and out of the edge of the sea, until at last they caught up with them and saw that the dog was a white and black terrier and the man was just a man who said "Good morning" politely to Dad. But this morning coming down before church they had been the very first, and they had run across the great flat sand in the early morning light, "the lone and level sands stretch far away" as it said in the poem, with the waves lapping with little white edges and beyond them the sea stretching out even further away, stretching all the way to America. Dad walked along the edge of the sea looking for shells and seaweed, but the children ran barefoot and free. Patsy could run as fast as Oswald, even though he was two and a half years older. She could run faster than any of the other seven-year-olds. One day later in the week Dad would organize athletics on the beach, he had promised, and she would win, she knew she would. She could do a handstand every time and a cartwheel twice out of three times.
"This is going to be the best pulpit ever!" she said, digging enthusiastically. "Better than last year. And Mr. Price will give the best sermon ever and convert all the heathens!"
"That's right, old girl," Dad said. "But don't throw your sand out behind you without looking, you're getting it on people."
She looked around guiltily, but he was laughing, not angry, although her sand had spattered his legs. It was so nice to spend whole days with Dad like this. It only ever happened in the summer and perhaps for a day or two at Christmas. He worked so hard selling wirelesses and mending them for people. He went off on his bike before she was up in the morning and sometimes didn't come back until after she was in bed. On Sundays he didn't work, but he was usually so tired that Mum made her and Oswald tiptoe around after they came back from church. Sometimes he would rouse himself in the afternoon and take them out for a walk, or organize a ball game in the park. Then she would catch a glimpse of her summer father, the man who loved to play. He had the older children running down to the sea now with buckets, to bring water to wet the sand to shape it. Patsy dug more carefully.
"Why aren't you a minister, Dad, like Mr. Price?" she asked.
"God didn't call me that way," he replied, talking to her the way she liked, as if she were an equal.
"And He did call you to be a wireless installer?"
"Well, I learned about radio in the war, and so when I was demobbed it seemed like a good choice," he said.
That didn't seem as grand as God calling him. "Didn't God -- " she began.
"Why do you want me to be a minister anyway, Miss Patsy?" Dad interrupted.
"Ministers only work on Sundays," she said. "You'd be home with us the rest of the time."
For a moment she was afraid from the look on Dad's face that she'd said something naughty, or worse, blasphemous. Her mother shut her in the cupboard when she said anything blasphemous, though she never meant to. She knew thoughts about God and ministers had the potential to get to dangerous places. Then he threw back his head and laughed so much that all the other children laughed too, even though they hadn't been listening and didn't know what he was laughing about, and other groups on the beach, people they didn't know at all, turned their heads and looked at them. Patsy hadn't meant to be funny, but she was so relieved she had been funny by mistake and not blasphemous by mistake that she laughed too, but hers wasn't a real laugh or the infectious hilarity of the other children.
"I must tell Mum that," Dad said. "How she'll laugh! I dare say she'd not like it if I was under her feet six days a week instead of only one!"
Oswald was back with a bucket almost full of sea water. He must have been carrying it very carefully so as to avoid spilling. "Tell Mum what?" he asked.
"Patsy wants me to be a minister so I'll only have to work on Sundays!"
Oswald didn't laugh. "I'm not sure Mum would find that funny," he said.
"No, maybe you're right," Dad agreed.
"Patsy's not a baby any more. She should know that ministers work hard visiting the sick and ... writing their sermons and..." it was clear that Oswald's imagination was at an end.
Dad laughed again. "It's all right old boy. I won't say anything to Mum. You're probably right that she wouldn't see the funny side."
"It's just that she wants us to be like Lady Leverside's children," Oswald said.
Dad pulled Patsy onto his lap and patted the sand for Oswald to sit next to him, which he did, setting down the heavy bucket. "She wants the best for you," he said. "For both of you. That's why she wants you to dress nicely and speak properly and all of that. Your Mum worked for Lady Leverside before we were married, and that's where she learned to take care of children. So that's how she knows how to make bathing costumes and recite poetry and all that. I didn't have the advantages you're getting. Your Gran didn't know any of the things you're having the chance to learn from your Mum."
Patsy smiled at the thought of comfortable old Gran reciting poetry. Gran cooked on the fire and made the best toffee in the world, but she wasn't a poetry sort of person somehow.
"But, while it's good that you have those advantages, this is very important, I want you to know that you're just as good as Lord Leverside's children, as good as any children in the world. You can do as much as they can, more. You can do better than them. You can go far and achieve great things."
"But they're honourable children," Patsy said. "The Honourable Letitia and the Honourable Ralph. We're not like them. Mum says we're not."
"She says she doesn't want us to be common," Oswald said.
"Like when you were playing football with the boys and you came home and said -- " Patsy started eagerly, but Oswald punched her arm.
"It's not fair repeating tales," he said.
Dad looked at him reproachfully. "It's better than hitting a girl, and one three years younger than you. That's just the kind of thing I'm talking about, where you have the chance to learn better and you should take it."
"Sorry," Oswald said. "But honestly, Dad, she shouldn't repeat things like that."
"No, Patsy, your brother is right. If he said something he shouldn't and Mum punished him, then that should be the end of it."
"Sorry," Patsy said. "I didn't mean to sneak." She put out her hand to Oswald to shake, which he did.
"But coming back to the other thing," Dad said, "The fact that they're The Honourable and you're just Master and Miss means nothing. You're every bit as good as they are, and you can go as far as they can. When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?"
"Adam!" Patsy said, quickly before Oswald could answer such an easy riddle. "And Eve was the lady!"
Oswald laughed. "She doesn't understand, Dad."
"But you do, don't you? You know what I'm saying. Look at it this way, did Lady Leverside bring up her children herself? No, she chose your mother to do it. You're having the same upbringing they had."
One of the other children came to ask Dad a question about the pulpit and he got up to help. Patsy sat still, crinkling her toes and feeling the sand scrunch up under them. Lady Leverside's children had seemed as far above her as the sun and the moon. Mum never said Patsy was better than they were at anything, never even as good. It was always "The Honourable Letitia would never have spoken with her mouth open..." or "forgotten her cushion..." or "come downstairs with her hair unbrushed." Patsy was used to thinking of them as paragons. She considered Dad's view that she was as good as they were, and potentially even better. Yet she knew they had six of everything, all of the best, and if they grew out of any of their clothes they had more right away, ordered from John Lewis's. She and Oswald only had one set of best clothes at a time, and only two other sets of clothes, and they were forever outgrowing them or tearing them. She tore hers climbing trees and Oswald tore his playing football or fighting with boys.
"When I'm thirteen they're going to send me away to school," Oswald said, plopping down on the sand beside her.
"Will they me?" Patsy was alarmed, even though thirteen seemed impossibly far away, almost the whole length of her lifetime.
"I don't think so, because it's really expensive and you're a girl," Oswald said. He wasn't looking at her, he was tracing a complicated design in the sand with his finger. "I think they'll send you to a day school."
"Why will they send you then?"
"Because of what Dad just said about getting on. Dad left school when he was fourteen and he's been sorry ever since. He wants me to be a gentleman, just the same as Mum does." He didn't look up, but he piled up the sand wildly over the pattern he had made.
"Like Adam," Patsy said, and for the second time didn't understand why she had made somebody laugh.
"But it's all such tosh," Oswald said. "I'd a hundred times rather be brought up by Gran and get a job at fourteen than spend my life trying to ape something I'm not."
"Why don't you tell them so, then?"
"Oh come on Pats, you know there are things you can say and things you can't."
She did know. It seemed she had always known. She wanted to do something to comfort her brother, but there wasn't anything. Gran would have hugged him, but in their house hugging was discouraged. She put her hand out again for him to shake, and he shook it solemnly.
"Come on," he said.
"Where?" she asked, getting up at once expectantly.
"You'd come anywhere with me, wouldn't you, Pats?" Oswald smiled down at her. "I must go down to the sea again!"
"The lonely sea and the sky!" she shouted.
"Anything less lonely than the sea in Weymouth on a hot Sunday morning in July is difficult to imagine," Dad said.
Later, after a bathe where she had swum ten strokes without Dad holding on, she ran on rubbery legs up to Mum's deckchair. Mum was reading the paper and looking very serious, but she put it down when she saw them and got out the towels and their clothes so they could dress nicely for lunch. Mum had sewn brightly striped beach towels into little tents with elastic around their necks so that they could take their wet things off underneath and didn't have to go into the changing huts, which were smelly and besides cost money.
Dad dried his back with a big flat towel. "Patsy's really learning to swim," he said. "You should enroll her for lessons at the baths when we get back to Twickenham. It's easier to swim in the baths," he said over his shoulder to her. "There aren't any waves to smack you in the face."
"All right," Mum said. "If she'd like it. Oswald started going when he was about this age."
"Have you had a nice peaceful morning?"
"Lovely," Mum said, though how it could be lovely sitting still in a deckchair reading Patsy couldn't imagine.
"Is there any news in the paper?" Dad asked.
Mum tutted, which she did when she was going to report on something of which she disapproved. "It seems as if the Nazis in Germany have banned all the other political parties -- made them illegal just like that. Theirs is the only party. Goodness knows how they think that's going to work when they have elections."
"I don't suppose they're planning to have elections," Dad said. "It looks to me as if that Herr Hitler intends to be Führer for life."
"And such horrible things," Mum said. Then she changed her tone completely and turned to Patsy. "Aren't you dry yet? They'll be laying out our lunch before we get back if you don't hurry. We don't want to make extra work for Mrs. Bonestell."
Oswald pulled off his towel, revealing his neat shirt and shorts underneath. "I wish we could have a picnic on the beach."
"Not on a Sunday," Mum said, reprovingly.
"We got the pulpit built," Dad said quickly. "Mr. Price will be able to get right up there and preach, and we can all sing hymns as loudly as we can. Patsy was saying he'd convert any heathen on the beach."
"I hope you built it in the right place this time," Mum said.
"We took proper notice of the tide," Dad said. "Don't worry, there won't be any of that King Canute preaching this year. Are you dressed under there yet, Patsy?"
Patsy had got her dress twisted up somehow so she couldn't find the hole for her right arm. Dad held the big towel up and Mum rapidly sorted her out. "Now let's go up and get some Sunday dinner," Dad said. "Lunch, I mean. Come on!"
Twelve and a half more days of holiday, Patsy thought, and swimming lessons when she got home. Even if Oswald did have to go away to school it wasn't for three years, and even if the Germans were acting peculiar they were a long way away. Mum and Dad were smiling at each other and Oswald was carrying the bucket and both spades, and if they were lucky there might be tinned salmon and tomatoes for lunch.
In the end it was the same as if she had been sent away to school, because she was thirteen in 1939 and her day school was evacuated. Patty spent the war years in safe but miserable deprivation in Carlisle. There was never enough of anything, until they grew used to it and did not expect there to be. The days before the war began to seem like a utopian dream. She learned Latin and French and how to do sums in pounds, shillings and pence, she learned long division and A. E. Housman. She did well academically. She made friends but no close friends. The comparative wartime poverty of them all highlighted rather than erased the class differences. She remained athletic but not good at team sports. She excelled in tennis and rowing and swimming, which gained her some popularity as she moved up the school.
In due course Oswald left his minor public school at seventeen, and went straight into the RAF, where he ended up in Bomber Command. He was killed in the autumn of 1943 flying a raid over Germany. Patty went home to Twickenham that Christmas, all heartiness and perpetual appetite, in the middle of a late growth spurt. She found her mother trying to be proud of her heroic son but succeeding only in being desolate. Her father looked ten years older. She knew she was no compensation to them for Oswald's loss, and did not try. Her own loss was constantly with her.
On Boxing Day she dragged her father out for a walk. "Come on, Dad, got to blow off the cobwebs!"
He was almost silent as they walked their familiar circuit, up through the park, where they had collected conkers every year, around the church and back down the hill, past the bushes where they always picked blackberries. The absence of Oswald was almost deafening. "How are you doing, old girl?" her father asked at last.
"Oh, you know," she said. "How about you, Dad?"
"I do miss that boy," he said, and his face crumpled up.
"And how's work?" she asked, embarrassed, desperate to change the subject.
"You know I can't talk about my war work!" he said.
It was the last time she saw him alive. He was killed a few months later by a direct hit from a V-1, on the day she took the Oxford entrance exams. She went up to Oxford for a visit and was awarded an Exhibition to St. Hilda's College, which would provide her with enough money to live on while she studied, without need for parental support. She called to see her mother on her way back to school, spending an uncomfortable night in her old room. There was very little for her to eat, and she had a long complicated train ride ahead of her. Her mother took the triumph of having been accepted and awarded the Exhibition entirely for granted. "They'll be taking more women because so many men are out because of the war," was all she said. After Patty's obligatory words on meeting, her father was not mentioned.
Going upstairs early to bed, clutching a hot water bottle for warmth in the cold spring, she quietly opened the door to Oswald's old room and found it stripped bare even of the furniture and carpets. Only the paler patches on the wallpaper where his photographs had hung showed that he had ever been there at all. In her own cold bed, where there was not enough light to read, she wondered how much of a mark Oswald had left on life. He had broken their parents' hearts, and helped her grow up. (Almost eighteen and newly accepted at St. Hilda's, she felt thoroughly grown up.) He had probably cheered his comrades in the RAF. She wondered if he had had a girlfriend. She had seen so little of him in the last few years, both of them away from home, and the war. And of course, though she didn't like to think of it, he had thoroughly changed the lives of the people whom he had bombed. She thought of factories destroyed that would not make bombs that would not kill people the way her father had been killed. She thought of planes damaged by Oswald's attacks so that raids took place later and killed different people, or didn't take place at all. She tried not to think of houses in Germany falling and crushing their inhabitants like the bombed-out houses she had seen in Twickenham and Oxford. Oswald had done his best, as her father had in two wars now, while she had done nothing. She had been a child, but the war was still on and she was proposing more study, not war work.
The train journey the next day was even more gruelling than she had expected. The main line north had been bombed and not yet mended, so the train crept around by branch lines, last in priority after troop trains and even goods trains. At Rugby an American soldier got on and tried to flirt with Patty, who had no idea how to respond and stood frozen until he apologized and said he had thought she was older than she was. She was about to have her eighteenth birthday. She knew other girls her age flirted and joked and were at ease with men.
At Lancaster, which should have been five hours from London but which had been eleven, the train came to a permanent halt. She stood on the platform of the Victorian station, part of a group of stranded travellers. "There's nothing going north tonight," the guard said. "Not unless you want to go around by the Cumbrian Coast line. There's a train just starting for Barrow, and it'll go on up that way. But you'd do better stopping the night here."
"Does it go to Carlisle?" somebody asked.
"Yes, all the way round the coast to Carlisle. It's slow like, but it gets there in the end."
Patty climbed into the little train which rattled along the rails. It was full of workers in overalls making for the Vickers yards at Barrow-in-Furness. One of them, a gray-haired man with a lined face, prodded his younger companion into giving Patty his seat. "Can't you see the young lady's tuckered out?"
Patty sat gratefully. "I am. I've been travelling all day."
"Where have you come from then?" the man asked.
"That's a step! What took you there?"
"I had an interview yesterday at an Oxford college, and I spent the night with my mother just outside London."
"Oxford!" The man was gratifyingly impressed. "An Oxford scholar! You must be a brainy one then."
Patty smiled. "They're taking more women because the men are off at the war. I've been wondering whether I should go even so, or whether I should be doing war work."
"If you have the chance to better yourself you should take it," he said, and though his manner was completely different he reminded her of her father. "I'm a fitter, and I've done as well for myself as I can. Now our Col who gave you his seat, he's a fitter too, but he's taking night classes and after the war he means to get on."
"Your son?" she asked.
"My nephew," he replied, and was silent a moment, then changed the subject. "Now, where are you going tonight? Are you going to school?"
"Yes, back to my school. It's been evacuated to Carlisle."
"Carlisle! You won't get there tonight!" As if to emphasize his words the train slowed to a stop.
"The guard on the platform in Lancaster said this train went around the coast to Carlisle," Patty said.
"Well, so it does, but not until tomorrow. I don't know if we'll be in Barrow before midnight, but whenever we get there the train will stop there until the morning and go on to Carlisle then. Tom, what time does the train go out to Carlisle in the morning?"
The man addressed had a little rabbitty moustache. He pulled a booklet out of his pocket. "Ten oh eight," he said after a moment's perusal. "Why's that, Stan, what do you want with going to Carlisle?"
"It's not me, it's the young lady here. They told her in Lancaster she could get to Carlisle by this train, but it's not so is it?"
All the men looked at Patty, who blushed under their attention.
"Well, whatever they told her she won't get further than Barrow until ten oh eight tomorrow morning. You'd have done better to have stopped in Lancaster, lass," Tom said.
"Don't worry, you can stay with my Flo and me," Stan said reassuringly. "Flo will make you up a bed in no time and find something for your supper too, as I expect you're hungry."
"I'm always hungry," Patty said, sincerely, but all the men laughed.
She slept that night in a worker's cottage in Barrow-in-Furness. She woke early to the sound of seagulls calling. She had not known Barrow was by the sea. She opened the blackout cautiously and saw gray waves by the gray daylight. It was just before seven in the morning. She dressed quickly. The room was a boy's room with a carefully made hanging model of a Spitfire and framed amateur perspective drawings of birds. She wondered where that boy was, dead or away at the war? She remembered Stan's face when he had said that Col was his nephew. She went downstairs. Flo was in the kitchen already, making up the fire. "You're an early bird, Patty," she said. "Would you like a cup of tea?"
"You've been so kind, and I would like a cup of tea, but I just saw from my window that we're by the sea. I haven't seen the sea properly since before the war, and I thought I might just slip out quickly for a walk now, first, before I do anything." As she said it Patty thought she was being silly, but she remembered the clean-swept sand and the sound of the sea.
Flo looked skeptical. "It isn't the proper sea, just the bay, like. You need to go around to Morecambe for the proper sea with a bit of a beach and things to do."
"There wouldn't be anything to do at this time of the morning anyway. I just want to run down and see it."
"Well it's right there at the bottom of the street, for what it's worth," Flo said.
Patty pulled on her coat and went out. The wind was gusting and the sky was brightening a little. The cords of an empty flagpole were clapping repetitively, a solitary empty sound.
As Flo had said, there was no proper beach. The waterfront was just a narrow shelf of stones and broken shells where the waves were breaking. Out across the bay she could see the shadow of the other shore. It couldn't be more different from the blue sky and limitless horizon of Weymouth before the war. Yet still the waves ran in endlessly and comfortingly on the strand. In and back, each a little closer, breaking in a rush of spray, and then the sound of the shingle being sucked back, drowned as the next wave came forward, each wave different and each the same. The sea was as new as the morning, and yet the same sea as when she had been a child and Oswald and her father still alive, and the waves ran in and back as they had been doing all the time since she had last seen them.
Above the seagulls circled and called. Nobody else was down by the water. Patty felt herself taking deeper breaths. There were other birds at the edge of the waves, not seagulls, black and white birds with sharp beaks.
She crouched down. It was too cold to consider sitting on the pebbles. She did not throw a stone because she didn't want to hurt or frighten the birds. She watched them wading in the shallow water at the edge of the sea. It felt like a blessing being there and watching them. She remembered Mr. Price preaching from the pulpit they had built for him one of those summer Sundays, not the King Canute Sunday, and not the day her father had quoted "When Adam delved," some other ordinary holiday Sunday. "You can always bring your troubles to Jesus, and you can bring him your happiness too. Jesus is always there for you. Jesus loves you, loves you, in your griefs and your joys. God is your father, everybody's father. He loves you like a father. If you turn to him in your troubles, God can help."
In recent years she had grown away from the simple piety of her childhood. In school many of the girls mocked at the way the teachers hypocritically mouthed religious sentiments, and some of that slopped over into mocking Christianity itself. And the war had lasted such a long time, and taken so much from her. But the sea was still here, and just like it God was still here, waiting patiently, although she hadn't been paying attention. Jesus was there, and loved her, and the sea was there, endlessly going in and out. She had lost her earthly father and brother, but she still had her heavenly father. And of course they were not just gone, they were with God. In a sense she still had Dad and Oswald. She had the hope of seeing them again. Tears came to her eyes and she let them spill down her cheeks. There was nobody there but the sea and the seabirds. She felt as if she had been given a great gift.
Back in Stan and Flo's kitchen they had breakfast just ready: Cumberland sausage and fried bread and strong tea with milk and sugar. "We'd give you an egg if we could," Flo said.
"Sausage is more than enough. I know that's from your ration," Patty said.
"Sausage makes the meat go further," Flo said.
Stan said grace unselfconsciously, as he had the night before. Patty's "Amen" was less automatic and more heartfelt than it had been then, but nobody remarked on it.
"Did you find what you were looking for down by the sea, then?" Flo asked as she started to cut her sausage.
"More than I was looking for," Patty replied as soon as her mouth was empty.
"More?" Stan asked.
Patty couldn't speak.
"She said she hadn't seen the sea since before the war," Flo said.
"Reckon it might be a thing you could miss at that," Stan said.
"What are those black and white birds with pointed beaks that run along the edge of the water?" Patty asked.
"Why, those would be oystercatchers," Stan said after a moment's pause. "Do you like birds then?"
"I don't know much about them."
Stan got up and went to the bookshelves above the big wireless in the corner of the kitchen. He pulled down a big green book and flicked through it to a sketch of the bird she had seen. "One of those, like?"
"Yes, that's it!" she was delighted.
"Our Martin was very fond of birdwatching. It's a nice hobby for a boy. Doesn't cost much."
"I can see this would be a good place for it," she said. "And I'm sure my brother would have loved it, though Twickenham wouldn't be so good."
"You'd be surprised how many birds you can see in a suburb," Stan said.
"That's Martin's room you were sleeping in," Flo said. "He's in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. We don't hear from him half as often as we'd like."
"At least he's still alive," Patty said. "My brother -- "
"There's no call to upset yourself," Flo said, and put a hand on her shoulder.
"No reason birdwatching wouldn't be a nice hobby for a girl too," Stan said. "I think we have a beginner book here that our Martin grew out of long ago." He pulled out another much slimmer book. "You take this, and that'll be a start."
"You've already been so kind," Patty said.
"Now I have to get off to work, but you'll find your way back to the station all right, won't you?" Stan said, finishing up his breakfast.
"I will. And I can never thank you enough for taking me in, and the book, and ... and restoring my faith in human nature," Patty said.
"You think of us when you're an Oxford scholar," Stan said. "And we'll think of you. And when Martin comes home we'll tell him he had a girl in his bed when he was far away!"
When first Patty went up to Oxford she threw herself into the Christian Union and her newly rediscovered love of God. All her friends were drawn from Christian Union circles, which were happy to include her. Although she remained shy and awkward, for the first time in her life she felt she belonged. It was the autumn of 1944, the Education Act had been passed, and free and equal access to education for everybody was for the first time a reality. The invasion of Europe had begun in June with the Normandy landings, and although she was no longer so entirely riveted to the radio for news updates as things dragged out, it seemed finally possible to imagine that the war might one day be over. There was a spirit of optimism and the sense that a better world was coming. Meanwhile the petty daily inconveniences of the war ground on, with everything in short supply. Oxford was full of women and cripples -- men injured in the war. Patty rowed both in the women's eights and alone. She went on outings organized by the Christian Union. She read Milton and struggled with Old English. She worked hard. Her essays got unspectacular but good marks.
VE Day came and Hitler died in his bunker, and although the war with Japan ground on, there was a sense that everyone was more than ready to be done with the whole thing and move on. Then in the summer the Americans dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima. Patty heard the news on the old humming wireless in her mother's house, and shared the sense of relief everyone initially felt. She went back up to Oxford feeling a burden had been lifted, though rationing was worse than ever and new clothes were impossible to find even if you had the coupons. A few veterans were in that year's intake, and a few young men postponing conscription now that the war was over. There was an election, in which Patty could not vote, being under twenty-one, but in which she took a close interest. The Labour party under Attlee were elected with a massive majority, which she saw as a mandate for social justice and true equality for everyone, and rejoiced. In other ways, her second year was much like her first.
She acquired a boyfriend, an earnest young man called Ian Morris. He was a year younger than she was, one of the men who deferred his conscription to go to Oxford. He had not taken any part in the war, and it was hard to imagine him as a soldier. She found him profoundly unthreatening. The Christian Union might argue passionately over faith versus works or on the precise way to administer charity, but they were united on the subject of sex -- they were against it. Rather, they professed to be for sex within marriage for the purposes of procreation, but for all of them that was for a distant future. Patty rarely thought about sex, and when she did she felt a vast apprehension and an equally vast ignorance. She knew almost nothing about it. Some men, and indeed some girls, she found sexually frightening. She felt safe with Ian. He occasionally put his arm around her shoulders when in company, never when they were alone. They agreed that they were "waiting." He did not press her. They danced together at Christian Union dances, and Patty pretended not to notice that she was taller than he was.
She had imperceptibly become aware that neither the Christian Union nor Oxford were as shining and perfect as she had initially thought them, and had become accustomed to making excuses for them in her mind when they fell short of what she felt they should be. She called this "being charitable." She easily began to exercise the same slightly brisk charity with Ian. He never came into her mind when she read the Metaphysical poets.
It was towards the end of the Trinity term of her second year that Patty fell out with the Christian Union.
There were two girls who lived on her staircase in St. Hilda's, Grace and Marjorie. Marjorie was in the Christian Union and as such was a friend of Patty's. Grace she knew mainly for her extreme shyness and nervousness. She was reading chemistry and was reputed to be brilliant, though how brilliance in chemistry manifested itself Patty had no idea. She had long pale hair and large breasts and tended to scuttle, clutching her books to her chest, darting sideways glances if addressed. The first Patty knew of the scandal was when it was whispered to her by Ronald.
"Have you heard about Marjorie?"
"Heard what about her?" Patty had stopped in at Bible tea on her way back from the river. She'd had a ducking and her hair was dripping down the back of her neck, which made her rather impatient. The Bible tea was a regular event held in the house of Mr. Collins, a minister attached to the Christian Union. A group of them would meet in his house for tea and then a Bible reading and discussion -- they were working their way through the Acts of the Apostles, and Patty generally enjoyed it very much. She was early today, and nobody was there except Ronald, who had an artificial leg and was reading PPE. PPE, the dreaded Politics, Philosophy and Economics degree, often seemed to attract know-it-alls, in Patty's experience. Ronald was one of the members of the Christian Union toward whom she found it most difficult to extend charity, though she had prayed to do better.
She cut herself a thick doorstep of bread and buttered it, then ladled on gooseberry jam. The gooseberries had been extremely plentiful that year, and they had all saved their sugar ration for the jam. Patty had put in a great deal of time stirring the jam in Mr. Collins's kitchen, so she felt entitled, as well as hungry. She felt that Ronald was observing her greed and that he would report on it unfavorably to others.
"She's a lesbian!" Ronald said, as if delighted to pass on the intelligence. Patty literally did not understand for a moment until he went on. "She's actually been caught sleeping in the same bed as another girl."
Patty knew about this kind of thing. It went on in girls' schools as it did in boys' schools, however hard the teachers tried to stamp it out. She was more repelled by Ronald's prurient delight in telling her about Marjorie than by what Marjorie was supposed to have done, which she could not clearly imagine.
"Mr. Collins has spoken to her and she refuses to give it up or repent," Ronald went on.
"It's probably all the most ridiculous nonsense," Patty said, stuffing her bread and jam into her mouth and speaking with her mouth full. In Patty's private opinion, Mr. Collins was too ready to be uncharitable and had it in for the women. "I'm going to talk to her."
"I certainly am."
Patty strode off full of indignation, which carried her back to her residence and to the door of Marjorie's room. She hesitated before knocking, and then the memory of Marjorie's clear voiced declarations of her love of God sustained her. She knew Marjorie wouldn't have done anything wrong. She knocked.
"Who is it?" Marjorie asked.
"It's me, Patty," Patty said.
"What do you want?"
"Just to talk to you." Patty's courage was draining away. "It's not important. But Ronald told me the most frightful nonsense about you and I wanted to tell you I didn't believe it."
Marjorie opened the door. It was apparent that she had been crying. "Oh, it isn't true!"
"I knew it couldn't be."
Marjorie ushered Patty into her room, where she sat on the bed to allow Patty the chair. "Would you like -- " Marjorie hesitated. "Well actually I haven't got anything except some cough sweets my sister sent me, but would you like one of those?"
"I'd love one," Patty said politely.
"The thing is, I have been sleeping in Grace's room," Marjorie said, once Patty had the cough sweet in her mouth.
"Grace!" Patty said.
"I know. But she has the room next to mine. And I could hear her crying in the night, and I couldn't just leave her to sob on and on. I went in to her. It turns out that she was blitzed and all her family killed. She was buried in the rubble for a day and a half. She can't bear to be alone in the dark, it brings it all back. Of course she can't keep a light on all the time, because they come around and check we're observing lights out, though she did try for a bit with flashlights except that she couldn't afford the batteries, and with candles she worried she was going to burn the place down. So I started sleeping in there with her, and she can get to sleep, and when she wakes up in the night I hold her hand. And that's really all there is to it."
"But that's just ... just Christian kindness," Patty said.
"It is!" Marjorie said. "I'm so glad you understand. Mr. Collins didn't believe me. He insinuated the most awful things. And at first I slept on the floor, wrapped in my blankets you know, but in the winter when it was so cold I started to get into bed with her, and I suppose it looks bad, but I shared a bed with my sister at home until I came to Oxford and I didn't see that it was any different."
"Didn't you say that to Mr. Collins?"
"He wanted me to repent and be forgiven, but I haven't done anything wrong! And he wanted me to promise I'd never sleep in there again, and I couldn't, I just couldn't. Grace has the most terrible dreams. And he wanted to know why I hadn't told anybody."
"Why hadn't you? We could have taken turns."
Marjorie sighed. "It was because Grace begged me not to, she doesn't want anyone to know about her dreams and her family. You know what she's like. It was hard enough for her to tell me."
"If she had told the college they might have put her in one of the rooms with two beds so she'd have had somebody there," Patty said.
"She was in one of those last year, but you know how they make a thing of the single rooms. Virginia Woolf and all that. I hate to even have to explain to Mr. Collins and you now, but I have to defend myself. Grace must see that."
"I think you ought to explain to everyone in the Christian Union. Once they know they'll understand." Patty felt sure of it. "They're good people, they love God, they know you do, they'll understand you're doing it in Christian kindness and you need to go on doing it. And they'll keep quiet about Grace, and it's better than what they're thinking about her now!"
"Could we be sent down, do you know? I mean if people really believed Grace and I were lovers? If we really were?"
"Of course you couldn't. Think of the willowy men."
"I think it is illegal, though," Marjorie said, crushing her handkerchief in her fingers.
"It's nonsense for it to be illegal," Patty said briskly. "It may be immoral and unclean because it's outside marriage, but it shouldn't be illegal. That's nonsense."
Marjorie began to cry again.
"Look, come down now. Nobody was there for the Bible tea when I left except Ronald, but they'll all be there by now. Come down and clear it up, and have some tea."
Marjorie was reluctant but Patty persuaded her to come with her. Mr. Collins's house was nearby, and the whole group was gathered when the girls came in. An awkward silence fell. Ian looked at Patty in horror. Patty saw at once that there was no use waiting for somebody else to say anything. She had developed a technique for overcoming shyness where she took a deep breath and then shut her eyes for a second as she began to speak. She did this now.
"Marjorie wants to tell you it's all a mistake," she said.
"There's really nothing wrong at all," Marjorie said. She went on to explain, as she had to Patty.
To Patty's astonishment, although the members of the Christian Union listened they did not immediately see that Marjorie was telling the truth. She was caught wrong-footed because she had been so sure that they would react exactly as she had and see that it had been an act of Christian kindness. Instead they said nothing, until Marjorie stopped talking and then one of the girls said, "If you want to repent we'll take you back into fellowship, but until then it would be better if you left."
Marjorie ran out of the room weeping. Patty began to follow her, but as soon as she was outside Ian put his hand on her arm. She thought at first that he had followed for the same reason she had, to comfort Marjorie, but he paid no attention to her. "Stop, Patty," he said.
Patty stopped and turned to him. "Didn't you see that she's telling the truth?"
"It seems a really unlikely, contrived kind of story. And if it's true, why didn't she tell anyone before?"
"Because Grace didn't want everyone to know and feel sorry for her." This seemed like a very reasonable answer to Patty, but Ian smiled cynically.
"I hardly find it likely. She has done wrong and is lying about it."
"No. I don't believe that, and I can't see how you can."
"You're such an innocent," Ian said. "It's good of you to try to see the best in everyone. But you have to think how it looks."
"How it looks?" Patty was bemused.
"If you defend her people will assume that you're a lesbian too."
Patty felt hot all over as if she was coming down with a fever. She could hardly believe this was Ian saying this to her. He took her stunned silence for acquiescence. "Come on back in," he said. Instead she turned on her heel and walked away from him.
The Christian Union did try to reach out to Marjorie, begging her to repent in a way that strongly resembled bullying. They tried the same thing on Grace, who fled them, and who did not return to college the next year. Patty became lonely again. She worked hard and spent a great deal of time sculling alone on the river, where she still felt close to God.
The Epistles of Mark: 1946-1949
Patty's third year at Oxford began in the autumn of 1946 and ended in June of 1947. In that year she engaged in a passionate affair with English literature, falling in love successively with Robert Herrick, her old friend Andrew Marvell, Elizabeth Gaskell, and finally and most spectacularly with T. S. Eliot. She also joined societies for various social causes, feeling that if the churches were falling to petty bullying, the secular world should be doing what it could. Oxford has many churches, and in the Michaelmas term she and Marjorie tried them all out, a different one every Sunday. She discovered a deep love of choral music and auditioned for the Bach choir, where she sang happily for the rest of the year. She continued to row. The war was over, but rationing and deprivation continued and were harder to bear. These were the years when Orwell was writing Nineteen Eighty-Four and understanding the value of the two-minute hate. There was a great deal of grumbling, to which Patty tried not to add. The first months of 1947 were the coldest she had ever known, and the shortage of fuel for heating made everything worse. She suffered terribly from chilblains.
This was the year when she worked hard on overcoming her shyness. She made herself talk to people and found that she could. She found it worked best to treat everyone as equals, elderly dons and small children alike, and they mostly responded well. She tried hard to find something interesting about everyone -- elderly housekeepers, women in shops, postmen. She usually found it, and began to make friends. Her chilblains were useful, everyone had them or had friends with them and had a suggested remedy. They cut across class barriers in a satisfying way. She tried to become outgoing. She made it a policy that if she was invited anywhere she would go. When the summer finally came, with finals looming, she cut her hair short because she was rowing and swimming every day and was tired of how long it took to dry. People told her she looked boyish in her flannels with short hair, but she knew she had never had any beauty to spoil.
In her last week at Oxford, with finals behind her but results not yet announced, she stopped in on a party in Jesus College. Cledwyn Jones, whose rooms they were, was a serious young man who cared about prison reform. There was beer at his party, which Patty declined; she had been brought up to shun alcohol, and besides she found it revoltingly bitter. She took lemonade and soon joined a conversation discussing the new National Health Service legislation. Wittgenstein was there, holding forth as usual. He was horribly drunk. Patty wondered how he ever had time to do any work at his official job in Cambridge when he seemed to spend all his time at parties in Oxford. She moved on and was introduced to a man called Mark Anston, who was in his first year. He was an inch or two taller than she was, but not especially good-looking. He was reading English, like her, but he seemed to be much more interested in philosophy. He also seemed very interested in her. She grabbed Cledwyn and asked about him. "Mark? Oh, he's brilliant. He's just got the highest marks anyone ever got in Mods or something like that. He's from the Midlands somewhere. One of the stars." When at last she left, Mark offered to walk her home.
It was a beautiful evening, warm and starlit. They walked together back to St. Hilda's, talking, and then, as they had not finished talking, walked on past the college, on and on, up and down, crossing and criss-crossing Oxford, past the colleges, out along the river and back. His conversation went to her head. She had never heard anyone talk so well. It felt worthy of the architecture of Oxford in the moonlight. She did not always agree with him, but she found him fascinating. He seemed equally fascinated with her, which was in itself intoxicating. She found herself telling him about Stan and Flo and the moment on the beach in Barrow, which she had never told anyone.
"I haven't seen you at the Christian Union though?"
"I've more and more come to the conclusion that I can find God better alone, in nature and in the world. There's so much hypocrisy in organized religion. I was in the Christian Union, but there was this terrible incident last year when I realized that they were just bullying this poor girl because they believed -- or wanted to believe -- that she was a lesbian. They came and prayed outside her window, prayed that she would repent, when in fact she had done nothing wrong at all. I couldn't bear it."
Mark took her hand, and she felt as if all her nerves concentrated there where he was touching her and spread out through her body. She almost gasped. "They should be pitied and prayed for, not shamed like that," he said.
"You've never felt pulled that way?"
She didn't understand what he meant for a minute. "Oh -- no. Honestly, I've never felt very much that way for anyone. But neither did Marjorie. She was sharing a bed with the other girl because the other girl was afraid to sleep in the dark. That's all there was to it."
"You're a little innocent," Mark said, looking charmed.
"No, really, that's what happened. And the Christian Union -- they're like sheep, and they're not sincere -- or individually they may be, but acting all together like that and asserting that they know God's will, they're not."
"Women have a simpler faith," he said. "I've often remarked it. Men need the dogmas, the organization, the clearly marked paths, where women have intuition."
Although she had said that she felt closer to God alone, and although he was praising women, Patty did not feel entirely sure about this. "I sing in the Bach choir, and I certainly feel close to God there," she said.
Mark nodded. "As for the Christian Union, I belong, but I try not to let them stifle me. Wittgenstein says -- "
"Are you a friend of his?"
"I have that honor." Mark spoke a little stiffly. Patty was impressed. "My father is a clergyman," Mark said, beginning again. "He always intended that I should follow him. But I believe I will stay here and become a don."
It was a noble ambition, and at that moment, outside the moonlit Bodleian, it seemed the most desirable thing in the world, never to have to leave Oxford. "How lucky you are," she said.
"I don't know how it is I didn't meet you until now," Mark said. "A whole year wasted. And you'll be going down soon. What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to teach at a girls' school near Penzance," Patty said. She had been so pleased and proud when she'd applied for the post and been awarded it.
"Cornwall!" He seemed utterly dismayed. "That's so far."
"We could write," she suggested timidly.
A clock struck eleven, and Patty froze. "I have to get in or I'll be in serious trouble." They walked swiftly towards St. Hilda's. Patty took one step up on the steps, but Mark did not release her hand.
"We must get engaged," he said. "But we can't marry for some considerable time. I have two more years here, and then a fellowship and a doctorate which would be another two or even three years, before I could possibly support you."
Patty stared at him in astonishment. "I want to say ‘This is so sudden'!" she said. "We only just met!"
"Yes, but there's no question, is there? Except working things out. This was clearly God's plan for us. You go to Cornwall and we'll write, and we'll see each other when we can, and we'll marry in four or five years."
Mark was like a force of nature, and his belief in Providence swept her away. "All right," she said. She expected him to kiss her, but he did not, he just nodded as if things were as they should be and wished her a good night.
She barely slept at all. The next day he took her to a little jeweller's shop and after having her finger measured bought her an engagement ring. He did not ask her opinion, which she thought romantic. Her ring was a thin hoop of gold with a tiny chip of diamond, and it was clearly the best he could afford. She was moved by this, as she would not have been by a ring bought by a rich man. He did not seem quite so magical by daylight, but she did not regret her decision.
Two days later, she left Oxford with an Upper Second degree. She spent the summer in Twickenham with her mother, who found fault with everything except Mark, when he visited. She even extended a little grudging approval of Patty for attaching him.
Patty saw Mark only twice that summer. The first time was that one occasion where he came to dinner at Twickenham to meet her mother, and the other time was in the buffet at Bristol Temple Meads, when she was on her way to Cornwall and he was on his way back to Oxford from a walking tour with some philosophers in the Scottish Highlands. He was in strange spirits on that occasion and kept talking about resisting temptation. He kept shifting in his seat and couldn't relax, so that she was almost glad when her train was called and the hour was over.
She heard from him every week, however. He sent her long erudite letters, full of quotations from poets, full of passion and philosophy, conversations he had had and thoughts he wanted to share with her. It took her days to answer them, and she never felt she reached his level. Yet he poured out his heart to her on paper. His letters were the best she had ever seen -- as good as Browning, she said to him. She had been bowled over by him on that night in Oxford, she truly fell in love with his letters.
She continued to receive them all that winter in Cornwall, another cold winter but not as cold as the year before, the first year of her teaching. Mark had sent her a green silk scarf for Christmas, and she wore it constantly against the Cornish winds. The Pines was a small school, exposed on top of a cliff. It was a fee-paying school, like the one she had attended, although only half the pupils boarded. It felt like regression after Oxford, being back to hockey matches and school reports and the smell of chalk. Oxford had continually stretched her mind; here she felt her horizons visibly shrinking. The girls did not much care for English literature, and she was working to a rigid curriculum set by the head of department. She was overwhelmed by their numbers and found it difficult to remember their names. She tried to keep up with the news and found it hard to care. India became independent, and Israel. They were both hot and far away.
She thought about leaving and taking a post at a grammar school where she would be teaching ordinary children. Mark argued against it, saying it wouldn't be worth it when it would only be for a year or two. She timidly suggested that perhaps she could find a post somewhat nearer. He said the separation was their trial, and was so eloquent about it that she wept. The weekly arrival of his letters was the brightest spot in her routine.
The next summer he took her to Nottingham and introduced her to his parents, who were cold and disapproving and said, separately, that they hoped she realized that Mark had no money and she had to wait. She did not tell them that she was earning money and he was not or that she had saved more than half her salary from that first year teaching. She said to Mark that his parents seemed to be Victorian leftovers. He did not laugh, but assured her that they would warm to her once she gave them grandchildren. She did not tell him how much they seemed to dislike her. She was very relieved when the week was over and she went back to Twickenham.
Marjorie got in touch and suggested that the two of them spend a week in France, camping and seeing the country. Patty counted her money and reluctantly declined, though she had never been out of Britain and longed to go. She did spend a week with her mother by the sea at Hastings, where the beach was made of rocks and roared when the tide came in, and there were concrete blockhouses to prevent invasion. Nobody seemed interested in removing the defenses that had been assembled so rapidly, and Patty wondered if they would be left to crumble. Her father had taken her to see crumbled castles. She wondered if future fathers would take children to see crumbled blockhouses. Bombsites, bright with purple fireweed in summer, were everywhere, modern ruins that she now passed almost without noticing.
Back in Penzance, Patty found her second year of teaching easier. The rest of the staff had relaxed a little and even made overtures of friendship, so she was less lonely. She had made some tactful curriculum suggestions that had been accepted, so she was less immured in Hardy than she had been the previous year. She began to take long walks along the cliffs and discovered accessible bays where she could swim entirely alone. "Smugglers' coves," one of the other mistresses said when she mentioned them. From seeing Cornwall as bleak and friendless she began to like it. She liked it when the sea swept up wildly at the base of the cliffs, and she liked it when the sea was calm and she could go down on the sand. She kept a wary eye on the tide, which she knew could easily cut her off, and made sure one of the other mistresses knew where she had gone and when she should be back. When it grew too cold to swim she continued to walk on the cliff tops, and even to go down to the edge of the sea and watch the waves. By the sea she always felt that God loved her and cared about her. She returned refreshed and ready to see the best in everyone.
She began to develop a brisk classroom manner to which the girls responded. She reminded herself that there was something interesting about everyone and began to find it in her pupils. A company of actors came to the school and put on A Midsummer Night's Dream, which was that year's set play for GCE. They were good, and she managed to use the visit to find some real enthusiasm in the girls, especially the girls in the lower forms who hadn't read the play beforehand. She petitioned for some gramophone records of Shakespeare, and the head of department agreed to consider it for the future.
All that year the highlight remained her weekly letters from Mark, the letters in which he felt so close. He was funny, passionate, fascinating -- he told her everything and had suggestions about everything. When she told him, awkwardly, about feeling close to God by the sea, he expanded on the Romantic view of nature and then extended that to the created world. In person, when they managed to meet, at Christmas and Easter, he was awkward and seemed a little shy of her, but she told herself that when they were married it would be like the letters all the time. He addressed her as his "second self" and said that she would redeem him. She read them over and over until she knew them almost by heart.
At the end of the year on a day when she had been invigilating examinations all day and had forty-five papers to mark before the next morning, she was unexpectedly called to the telephone.
The telephone at The Pines had been installed in the Thirties, and stood in a corridor in a pine cabinet shaped much like a red post office telephone box. There was a modicum of privacy, but not much more -- anyone walking down the corridor could hear you. It was not much used except in cases of emergency, and it had been installed largely for the benefit of anxious parents. Patty had called Mark once to tell him she couldn't meet him in Bristol because the school was under quarantine for mumps. They had not used it for communication. They had their letters. As she hurried along she knew what it must be -- his results were due, his long-awaited First, and he must want to tell her in person.
She hardly recognized his voice at first, it sounded so harsh through the long distance line. "I have a Third," he said, in tones of tragedy.
She was astonished. "How could that happen?"
"I've not been working at English, I've been concentrating on philosophy instead. I assumed I'd just walk through. I always have before. My real work was with Wittgenstein, but that wasn't how they saw it."
"Of course it wasn't."
"What? What did you say?"
"I'm sorry. Can you -- can Wittgenstein do anything?"
"Nobody can do anything for me now. My life is ruined."
"It's not as bad as that," Patty said.
"I won't get a fellowship. I'll have to become a schoolmaster. I'm calling to say I want to release you from our engagement now that I have no prospects." Hysteria rose in his tones.
"But that's ridiculous. I'll stand by you, you know I will. I'll wait as long as you like."
"I won't let you down, I promised to marry you, but you'll have to marry me now or never!" Mark said.
Patty felt faint, and the smell of chalk and cabbage and girls' sweat rose up around her. She did not want to be a burden to Mark, to marry him when he could not afford to start a family. As a married woman she would not be permitted to teach, and what else did an English degree qualify her to do? Besides, if they married, she'd soon have a baby, and she'd be unable to work. Yet she couldn't bear to give him up, to have his letters stop, for him to go out of her life.
"Oh Mark," she said. "If it's to be now or never then -- "
What the Poetry Is About: Tricia 1949
It was two weeks before the end of term. At first Mark tried to insist that she come to Oxford right away, that day, that very moment. There wasn't a train, and Patty knew they couldn't be married for three weeks in any case. Mark reluctantly agreed that she could serve out the term while he took out a marriage license. Even as it was, Patty endured the withering scorn of the headmistress when she gave her notice -- it sounded so absurd. Yet she couldn't continue teaching. Married women were not permitted to teach. Patty felt very much that she was letting The Pines down. She left the headmistress's room with a strong sense of burned bridges.
She marked her forty-five papers feeling she might as well be generous to the girls and give them marks for good intentions.
The rest of the term passed quickly. The other staff members gave her a leaving party, where she felt awkward and uncomfortable at their jokes. She did not hear from Mark during this time, neither by telephone, which she did not expect, nor by mail. She wrote and told him the train she would be taking but had no reply.
On the day before she left there was an envelope in her pigeonhole and her heart rose, only to fall when she found it was a letter from Marjorie, inviting her to join her on a trip to Rome. She wrote back at once, explaining and inviting Marjorie to the wedding "which will be in Oxford next week, I'll let you know the details if there's any chance you can come."
It took all day to travel between Penzance and Oxford. There was a fine damp mist as she set off, and as the train rattled its way the length of Cornwall and then through Devon, she came to watery sunshine, and then once past Newton Abbott it unfolded into a beautiful day. She alternated between panic and exhilaration. She was to be married to Mark, and the clatter of the train seemed to sing this as a refrain "married to Mark, married to Mark."
She changed in Bristol Temple Meads and bought a pallid sausage roll at the station buffet which she could hardly eat despite her hunger. She was afraid -- of Mark, who had been so strange on the telephone and so silent since, of the new life she was plunging into, of marriage, and most of all of her wedding night. Everything she knew about sex came from literature and now came back to her -- Shakespeare's bawdy, Roderick Random, D. H. Lawrence, Brave New World. She wondered whether Malthusian belts existed in real life and where they could be obtained. Sex seemed to have an aura of the eighteenth century and the nineteen-twenties, of beauty patches and the Charleston. She stared out of the window at hay stooks in meadows as the train drew closer to Oxford, and thought of Andrew Marvell, painfully aware that she didn't know what to do in bed. "A hundred years would go to praise thy lips and on thy forehead gaze. A hundred thousand for each breast..." Her own breasts were small. Would Mark be disappointed? "Let us roll all our strength and all our sweetness up into one ball..." But what did it mean, literally? She would have shrunk from any conversation with her mother on the subject, but she wished she had a married friend who might have advised her. What would Mark expect? She took one of his old letters from her handbag and re-read it and was comforted. His tone was so confident, so definite, and after all it was to her that he chose to address these intimate reflections.
It was late afternoon by the time she disembarked at Oxford. Mark wasn't on the platform, and her heart sank. She telephoned him in his lodgings. He still sounded strange and distraught. "You came, then," he said. "I wasn't sure."
"You can trust me to do what I say I will do," she said.
He turned up at the station in half an hour, in a car borrowed from friends. He did not kiss her or embrace her as she had half hoped and half feared. He barely seemed to look her in the eye. She wondered if she had made a terrible mistake. "You're going to stay with the Burchells for the next few days until we can be married on Wednesday. It's extremely good of them and I hope you'll be grateful."
For a moment Patty resented his assumption that she needed to be told how to behave. Then she forgave him. He was under a strain, of course.
"Wednesday? I'll write to my mother."
"I suppose you have to."
"St. Thomas the Martyr, in Osney."
Elizabeth Burchell treated the entire thing as a joke. The only thing she took seriously was Mark's Third, which she saw as tragic. "We'll have to try to do something with him," she said briskly. She was several years older than Mark and Patty, a philosopher with published books. Patty knew her only slightly. Her husband, Clifford, was a Classicist at Magdalen. They had a small daughter who seemed perpetually grubby and tearful.
Over gray sausages and watery cabbage she returned to the theme of Mark's failure and future. Clifford had apparently found Mark a teaching job at a boys' school in Grantham. "Until we can find something better," he said.
"You know how much I appreciate it," Mark said.
Patty would have appreciated being consulted as to where she would live, but she supposed there had hardly been time. The three of them clearly knew each other well and were well into making plans. Patty felt like a child, with her future being decided for her. This feeling intensified when after dinner Elizabeth, who had declined help, served watery coffee and stared at her over the cup. "You're not a bad little thing, but I positively can't call you Patty," she said. "It makes you sound like a little pie."
Patty looked to Mark for help, but he was laughing with the others and did not see it. "My full name is Patricia if you prefer that," Patty said, with what dignity she could manage.
"That sounds like a girl who rides to hounds," Elizabeth said.
Clifford snorted with laughter. "And it means a female member of the Roman upper classes. I can hardly imagine how it came to be a name at all."
"Tricia isn't so bad," Mark said, seeing her distress. "I think I'll call you Tricia. Would you like that?"
"Oh yes, much better," Elizabeth said, cutting off Patty. "And tomorrow we must find you something to wear. Do you have any coupons?"
Patty made herself a dress on Elizabeth's sewing machine, white cotton, short and very simple. She intended to dye it a more serviceable color later and wear it for a summer dress, but she resisted Elizabeth's suggestions of buying colored fabric. If there was white fabric available she intended to get married in white. It was the only part of the whole process where she managed to make her own decision stick. Mark, Clifford and Elizabeth had decided everything else. She spent most of her time in the Burchell house looking after the little girl, Rosemary.
"Children are a bore," Elizabeth said frankly, after she and Patty had bathed Rosemary and put her to bed one night. "You're not in the family way, are you?"
"No," Patty said, indignantly. She gathered her courage together. "I wanted to ask you about that."
"Oh yes, I am, about four months along and due in November if I've counted right," Elizabeth said. "You are a funny girl, making a mystery about that. I hope it's a boy this time."
Then she opened the door to the sitting room, where Clifford was reading, and Patty could not explain what she had really wanted to ask.
On her wedding morning she felt awkward in her wedding dress. She looked at herself critically in Elizabeth's huge Victorian mirror. There was something about the shape of the neck that didn't flatter her. But what did it matter anyway? She carried pink roses from the Burchells' garden bound together with a ribbon Rosemary had given her. She wore her tiny gold confirmation cross and remembered her father giving it to her.
Her mother came up from Twickenham for the occasion, wearing an enormous hat that Patty remembered from before the war. She looked ridiculous, but it made Patty feel terribly fond of her. She looked sharply at Patty's waistline but did not ask, as Elizabeth had, whether she was expecting. Patty tried not to mind the look. What was anyone to think, with them getting married at such speed? Clifford gave Patty away and Cledwyn Jones was best man. Mark's family did not attend. Marjorie, surprisingly, did.
St. Thomas the Martyr was High Church, and there was incense, as well as candles and splendid vestments. Patty did not mind them on that occasion and in the medieval building. She did find herself resenting the words of the marriage service, St. Paul's admonitions and her requirement to obey Mark. She promised meekly, and Mark Timothy Anston took Patricia Anne Cowan and they were pronounced man and wife in the sight of God and of the congregation.
Marjorie was the first to kiss Patty afterwards. "I'm on my way to Rome, but I've waited to wish you joy," she said. "I hope you'll be very happy." She didn't sound confident of it.
"Congratulations, Mrs. Anston," Elizabeth said.
"You congratulate the groom and felicitate the bride," Patty's mother said sharply. "Felicitations, Mrs. Anston, congratulations, Mark."
"Oh, of course, felicitations, Tricia," Elizabeth said.
Mark was looking over her head. Patty had been thinking that everything would be all right once they were actually married, that it would change everything. Once the ring was on her finger, she realized how idiotic that assumption had been, how it was magical thinking, and how Mark would despise her for it.
They had very little money, but the Burchells had insisted they spend their first night in a hotel -- and from what Mark said, Patty assumed that they had paid for it. The Oriel Guest House was right in the middle of Oxford but had little else to be said in its favor. It had threadbare carpets and a pervasive smell of overcooked vegetables. They ate dinner together, awkwardly, talking about the wedding. She felt disloyal laughing with Mark at her mother's hat, but it had been so absurd. "Mothers are supposed to dream about their daughters' weddings."
"This one can't have been what she dreamed."
"She would have dreamed my father and my brother there," Patty said.
Mark looked at her for what felt like the first time since she had come to Oxford, and put his hand on hers. "I'm so sorry they couldn't be there for you, Tricia," he said.
She realized he had been calling her Tricia ever since Elizabeth suggested it, and that he really liked it, preferred it to Patty. She thought of protesting, but it seemed such a terrible time, when he was actually paying attention to her and being kind. Anyway, what did it matter, she was changing her surname, she might as well go the whole hog and change her first name too. It was part of her name, anyway, always had been. And maybe Elizabeth was right; perhaps it was a more sophisticated name, more appropriate for her new life. Perhaps as Tricia she would be armored a little against whatever was going to happen upstairs.
Mark ordered two hot baths, first for her and then for him. She had bathed that morning at the Burchells', but did not protest. She took off the wedding dress and bathed again, thinking that when next she bathed she would be a woman. Then she shivered in their room. She owned two nightdresses, one red flannel and one striped blue and white cotton, which she had chosen as being newer and more summery. It was July and should not have been cold. The hotel room seemed to be all drafts.
It was not a large room. It had a double bed with a scratchy brown blanket, a rickety chest of drawers, a table by the window, and one overstuffed horsehair armchair. The blackout had been taken off the windows and replaced with limp chintz curtains. Mark's brown leather suitcase stood open next to her tweed grip, bursting with alien male clothes. On the wall there was a Doré etching of the damned in Dante's Inferno. She had brought nothing to read, and had nothing to do while she waited but stare at it, thinking of Sayers's translation of Dante and then of Sayers's Gaudy Night, which extolled the virtues of female intellectual work and yet ended with a kiss. Then there was that remark in Busman's Honeymoon about shabby tigers ...
Mark came in from his bath, wearing a brown wool dressing gown with his hairy legs visible beneath it. He was carrying a wine bottle and two glasses.
"I don't drink," Tricia said, shocked. "You know I don't. You don't either."
"Clifford says it's essential," Mark said. "Have a glass of wine. It's medicinal. It will relax you."
She obediently drank down the red wine, which tasted like altar wine and made her feel as if she were blaspheming by drinking it at such a time. She did not feel at all relaxed. She tried to imagine Mark asking Clifford what to do. She had not imagined Mark's previous experience, just assumed that of course men had some. But perhaps he had not? She felt fonder of him and less in awe. Mark drank his wine with an equal grim determination, then gathered up the glasses and set them on the table by the window. He drew the curtains and turned out the lights, making the room gloomy rather than completely dark. "Mark, I -- " she began.
"Don't talk," he said, desperately. "Get into bed and don't talk."
It was done in the dark and in silence, as if it were something shameful. She could not relax, and he fumbled and battered away at her, with what she knew must be his male member, but which felt so strange. She had imagined it would be rigid like a truncheon, but it was evidently not. She would have liked to have touched it. She had seen Oswald's and other little children's when they had played on the beach. When she tried to put her hand out to it Mark pushed her away and then turned his back on her and seemed to be furiously whipping away at it, or at something. He had bound her to silence and she dared not inquire. He turned back and lay on top of her again, battering away between her legs again, clearly trying to force a way inside. She tried to keep completely still to help. At last he managed it -- she bit her lip to stop herself whimpering, but it was no good, as the battering went on and on she could not stop herself crying or later from begging him to stop. There was no dignity left to her. This couldn't be it, the thing all the poetry was about, this painful bestial thrusting? At last he climbed off her and got out of bed, leaving her to cry alone in the dark.
"Mark?" she asked.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I'm sorry. Be quiet. I'm sorry." She saw by the streetlight through the curtains that he had wrapped himself in the blanket and was settling himself into the chair. She thought she should sleep, but she was burning between her legs and desperately needed to relieve herself. She got up and made her way to the toilet. There was blood on her thighs and in her pubic hair, no worse than she might have from the first day of a period, but stickier. No matter how she wiped herself she couldn't seem to get clean. She ran cold water into the basin and washed as best she could. She wished Mark had ordered her bath for afterwards instead of before. She tried not to think about it, about him. She should have asked Elizabeth, even if Elizabeth would have laughed. But what good would knowing have done her? No wonder they kept it so secret when it was so unpleasant. She washed herself over and over with cold water until the door to the bathroom rattled and an unpleasant male cough came from outside. Then she checked for any signs she might have left, and made her way up the stairs to their room.
Mark was fast asleep in the chair. She got into bed under the thin sheet, bitterly cold. She would have appreciated the blanket, if not her husband's presence. She hugged herself to try to get warm. She feared she had made a terrible mistake, but thought again of Mark's letters, all that love and devotion. He needed her. He really did, however he appeared. He was snoring a little. She would be a good wife to him, and mother to his children. She knew he wanted children, they had talked about it in their letters. Even if she had to go through that to get them. Perhaps she would grow accustomed to it, though she couldn't imagine how.
"And tear our pleasures with rough strife, through the iron gates of life," she thought. Plenty of tearing, and plenty of rough strife, but where were the pleasures? Andrew Marvell had a lot to answer for.
Heartbreak: Patty 1949-1951
Patty was sorry the second she had spoken, but Mark seemed almost relieved that she had decided to relinquish him. She stood in the little phone box for a moment after she had put the receiver down, trying to feel noble but wanting to cry. She made it back to her room before the tears spilled out of her eyes. She locked the door and flung herself down on her old patchwork quilt to sob. She wanted to re-read his letters but could remember them quite well enough. For the last two years he had been the focus of her life, and before that she had hardly been more than a child. She could hardly bear to resign herself to a future that had no Mark in it, coloring everything with his beautiful words and ideas. She forced herself with grim determination through her forty-five exam papers, feeling she was being unfair to the girls and pointing out every childish mistake. As soon as they were done she cried herself to sleep and woke to a misty Cornish morning and at once knew herself bereft.
It reminded her of hearing that Oswald had died, and she was immediately furious at the comparison. Mark was lost to her, but not dead. She had given him up because it would be better for him. They could still be friends, perhaps. He had said so on the telephone, but his voice had been falsely hearty. She was shocked at herself for comparing it to losing Oswald. It made her feel cheapened. All the same, she had the same lump in her throat getting dressed and going down to the classroom.
It was two weeks to the end of term. She wrapped up her engagement ring and sent it back to him with a note that took her hours to write. When she took it to the post office she found herself reluctant to let go of the parcel. It felt like her last link with Mark. She flung herself into her work, the examinations and final marking. She volunteered to take the girls for walks, and took long cliff walks alone. She could not help compulsively checking her pigeonhole for mail, even though she knew he would never write again, not even to acknowledge the return of the ring. She had renounced him for his own good, but how could he possibly forgive her? She could hardly forgive herself. On the day before term ended she saw an envelope waiting and felt her heart race, only to be dashed as she saw the handwriting. It was a letter from Marjorie, inviting her to go with her to Rome. She read it twice. This thin future was what she had instead of the rich future with Mark. She would never have love or marriage, never have children. She would take holidays with female friends and live for her work.
She replied to Marjorie and said she would go. She had plenty of savings, after all, now that she was not intending to marry. She had never been out of Britain. She might as well see the world. If she was to live without Mark, it would be good to get away from places where Mark had been. She could be miserable in Rome just as well as in Twickenham. She wrote to her mother telling her of her changed plans, and felt a sense of relief when that letter was posted.
She met Marjorie in London. "I don't know that I have the right clothes for Italy," she said.
"Nobody will care," Marjorie said.
"Italy..." she said.
"It's not like going to Germany," Marjorie said decisively.
On the boat from Dover Patty thought the gulls sounded different from the gulls in England, greedier, with a different accent. She wondered if they really were different. For the first time in a long time she remembered her book of birds that Stan and Flo had given her. She wondered if their son Martin had come home from the war, and if he had been very changed.
They took trains down through France and across the Alps. Patty found herself enchanted with everything -- the long baguettes, the strong-tasting cheeses and patés, even the citron pressé, so different from English lemonade. Both of them had schoolgirl French, neither of them could make themselves understood, but it didn't seem to matter. Once they were in Italy they could get by with Latin -- written Italian was absurdly easy, and Italians seemed happy to go out of their way to try to understand. Of course the men wouldn't leave them alone, but there were two of them, and Marjorie was good at getting rid of them, sometimes by appealing to the old women in black who always seemed to be around.
There was a lot of bomb damage, just like at home, and there was hot sunshine and wonderful simple food, which was very different. Patty ate pasta that was not macaroni, ate porcini mushrooms, ate pancetta and fresh mozzarella and pesto and delicious tiny zucchini. There were few tourists, even in Rome. They stayed in a cheap pensione, sharing a room, and saw all the ancient sites. Patty was amazed at how layered Rome was -- modern ruins side by side with ancient ruins, a restaurant serving delicious Italian pizza, flatbread with toppings and cheese, in the old temple of Pompey, Renaissance and medieval buildings made from Roman bricks and marble. Even when she saw Mussolini's name on a museum on the Palatine Hill, it was easy to forget that these friendly people had so recently been enemies, had been fascists, trying to kill them all.
In the Pantheon Patty looked up at the circle of blue sky at the center of the dome and saw three birds wheeling left to right across it. She knew that would have meant something to Agrippa and the Romans who had built this building. Augury. She did not know what it augured, but she felt it was something good. The clutter down below, the graves of modern kings and even the artist Raphael, seemed irrelevant to this purity of form, the grave splendor of the dome, the pillars, the circle through which the eye was drawn up to heaven, to God. She wept, and understood that she did not weep for herself. She knelt and prayed for help, opening her heart to Jesus as her father had taught her.
After that she began to heal from her heartbreak over Mark and to reconcile herself to life without him, as she had hoped. On the journey home she told Marjorie that she was no longer engaged, and Marjorie nodded sympathetically and did not ask more. They had a last continental meal in Calais, pooling the last of their francs. Currency controls had prevented them from taking much money out of England. They shared a citron pressé, taking alternate sips. "Let's do this again next year," Marjorie said.
Patty spent the rest of the summer with her mother, and returned to Penzance at the start of the new school year. It was another lonely year in which the absence of letters felt like a physical ache. She wrote to Mark once in care of his parents, asking how he was and saying that she was well, but she received no reply.
The Pines was so remote that it was hard for her to engage with life and avoid brooding. She threw herself into long walks, school activities and teaching, but all the things that had annoyed her about The Pines before seemed harder than ever now. Even the institutional food seemed unbearable now that she had tried something better. She tried to write poetry but was too severe a critic to continue what felt like an indulgence. She began to watch birds and try to identify them and to keep a "life list" as the book suggested, recording each species she saw that was new to her. She joined the RSPB and enjoyed their earnest publications. She bought binoculars and took them with her on her long walks along the cliffs. She decided to leave The Pines and move to somewhere with more life. She gave notice at Easter. She applied for and was given a position for the following year at a girls' grammar school in Cambridge.
That summer, the summer of 1950, she went again to Italy with Marjorie, this time to Florence. There she fell completely in love with Renaissance art. She spent days alone in the Uffizi -- one day was enough for Marjorie. Nobody bothered her when she stood in front of Botticelli's Madonna of the Magnificat, or Raphael's portraits of popes. There, in the gallery that had named the very concept of galleries, for the first time she saw man-made beauty that was as beautiful as the beauties of the natural world. She was unsophisticated in her tastes. Botticelli's Primavera and Birth of Venus kept her spellbound for hours. Looking at portraits, she wanted to know the people in them. She bought books on art, on Florentine history. After seeing his Ganymede she bought Cellini's autobiography in a cheap paperback translation with black and white photographs. She bought a book on Italian birds. Marjorie went home and she stayed on alone, visiting all the churches mentioned in her guidebook. She began to imagine a possibility of a life where she taught all year and spent her summers in sunlight with beautiful art. It was months since she had taken out Mark's letters to cry over them. She could almost speak Italian, which in Florence was like sung Latin anyway.
She sat alone in restaurants, eating pasta and refusing wine. Men looked at her lecherously and occasionally tried to touch her, but Marjorie's technique of appealing to old black-clad ladies continued to work. She spent her days looking at art and architecture, and eating gelato and drinking granita in a little place she had found near the church of Orsanmichele, called "Perche No!" Gelato was not ice cream but pure essence of frozen fruit, with flavors she could not have imagined -- watermelon, lemon, strawberry. She thought she would never eat ice cream again. She sat eating it and staring at Verrocchio's statue of Doubting Thomas poking at Christ's wound in a niche outside the church. That was the Christian way to deal with doubt: open yourself up to being poked at. Not shut it in a cupboard, as her mother had done when her childish inquiries about religion crossed some invisible and unpredictable line.
All her life she had had inferior things, ersatz things, ice cream instead of gelato, prints instead of paintings, rationed tasteless British institutional food instead of delicious Italian food. Only nature and music and poetry had really touched her soul in England in the way that everything did here. They had brought her closer to God, but in Florence everything did, every stone in the narrow streets, every metal sconce on the houses, the golden roof on the Baptistery, the proportions of the church of San Lorenzo, the taste of melon and prosciutto, everything. It was as if she had been lifted up through that circle of sky in the dome of the Pantheon and was in heaven. She found that she was crying into her gelato.
At last, Patty ran out of money and had to go home. She spent the last of her lira on a print of Ghirlandaio's Last Supper and went back hungry across Europe on the slow trains, third class. Early one morning, somewhere in France, an old lady shared her coffee and croissants with her. "I don't know why British people don't understand food," she said, knowing nobody would understand her. "I never had food in my life until I came to Europe." An old man in a Panama hat laughed, and translated her remarks to the others.
"At least you have food now," he said, wiping his moustache. He then proceeded to tell her about his adventures in the Resistance until she had to change trains in Paris.
In Cambridge she was much happier than she had been in Cornwall. There was music, which she had always loved, and there was the Fitzwilliam museum, which could not compare to the Uffizi but was better than nothing. There were student plays and orchestras. She joined two choirs, one sacred and one secular, and enjoyed singing challenging music. She also had the opportunity to row regularly, which she discovered to her surprise that she had missed very much. She went rowing alone early every morning that the weather made it remotely possible. Often she had the river to herself, with no sound but her oars and the wind in the trees. She began to watch birds more seriously, continuing to enjoy the RSPB's pamphlets but also attending their meetings. She took the train to Ely one Saturday to see the cathedral and watch birds on the marshes.
The grammar school was excellent and she liked her colleagues. She was no longer the most junior, and the head of department was open to her suggestions for curriculum improvements. The girls were hard-working and keen to improve themselves. She liked the fact that they were from ordinary backgrounds, and that in the new Britain they had every opportunity to go as far as their talent could take them. "As good as any children in the world," she remembered her father saying, and now she understood what he had meant and told them. She taught Shakespeare and poetry and showed them pictures in her art book, which made her look forward to visiting Italy again. She read everything she could find on Florentine history and the Renaissance.
That winter, the winter of 1951, Marjorie wrote to her saying that she was going to a meeting in Cambridge and asking if she could stay the night. Patty asked her landlady's permission and then wrote back cheerfully. She liked her digs. Rationing was finally over, and though food in Britain could still not compare to food in France or Italy, it was not as bad as it had been. Her landlady managed to get chicken for Marjorie's visit.
"What's the meeting?" Patty asked her friend.
"Oh, it's a silly thing really. There's a group of people trying to get people to know their rights. Homosexuals, you know." Marjorie looked embarrassed. "Somebody knew what happened to me and they asked me to speak at the meeting in Oxford, and I did. What happened to me and Grace -- and we hadn't even done anything! Imagine if we had. People don't know what's legal and what isn't and what the law can do and what the colleges can do. Then they asked me to speak at this meeting in Cambridge. I wouldn't have been able to except for staying with you, so thank you for that."
"I think I'll come too," Patty said.
"Oh really? You wouldn't want people thinking -- I mean, teaching, being with girls?"
"That's exactly the problem, isn't it? But I don't think anyone would think that, or even know. So many people are homosexual, and everyone knows, but it's still illegal and they can get into trouble for it if anyone wants to make trouble. It shouldn't be that way."
The meeting was well attended. Marjorie spoke well. The other speaker was a man who explained that the best policy was to keep quiet. "We all know what happened to Wilde, and that is still the law. But as long as we don't give anybody incontrovertible evidence and keep on denying any allegations, it's very hard for the police to move against us. It's not as if people want to know. If we're quiet, we're safe."
An undergraduate stood up and asked if the meeting thought it would be possible for homosexuality to be legalized in their lifetimes, and there was much debate.
A tall stooping man came up to Patty and Marjorie afterwards. "I liked what you said," he said. "I hadn't really realized before that there was this kind of problem. What happened to your friend was really unfair."
"Thank you," Marjorie said. When he had gone she turned to Patty. "Who was that?"
"Some crazily brilliant mathematician, I think," Patty said. "I've seen him around. He goes to concerts. Turner, or something like that. No, Turing. He's not a don. I'm not sure what he does."
A week or so later, as the pussywillows were just beginning to come out on the banks of the Cam, Patty met one of the girls who had been at the meeting as she was coming back from rowing. The girl had short hair as Patty still did. "Hello," she said. "I recognize you from the meeting."
Patty felt her heart beating unaccountably fast. "Hello. I've been on the river."
"I'm just going on the river," the girl said. "It's such a good way to start the day."
"Even at this time of year," Patty agreed.
"Would you like to row together sometime? Maybe on Saturday?"
Patty hesitated. "I would. But you should know that I'm not a lesbian. Not a ... a homosexual. I was just at the meeting because I think the way they treat you is wrong."
The girl laughed. "We usually do say lesbian. But it's not a requirement to row with me," she said.
"I just didn't want to be on false pretenses," Patty said, stiffly.
"Understood," the girl said. "Well if you'd care to meet me here this time on Saturday morning, I'd still be happy to row with you. My name's Lorna Matthews."
"Patty Cowan," Patty said, and they shook hands.
Lorna and Patty began to row together weekly, and Lorna would sometimes invite Patty to parties, and she would sometimes go. She felt she was developing a wider circle, a more bohemian circle, and she liked the idea. She began to make other friends too, in school and in choir. Her contract was renewed for the next year and she looked forward to coming back to Cambridge after the long vacation.
That year Marjorie went to the south of France and Patty went back to Florence alone. She stayed in a tiny pensione and did all the things she had done the year before. Some of the waiters recognized her, as did the staff at the gelateria "Perche No!" where she felt almost like a regular. As she walked into the Raphael room at the Uffizi she felt a great sense of homecoming, as if this could really be her life and that it could be good, a life without love but with work and friendship and summers in Italy. She still missed Mark, she was sure she would always miss him, but she had passed beyond his horizon and felt capable again of being happy.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock
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